Patrick Beverley was having none of it. When asked about resting players for the playoffs after the win over OKC on Sunday, the Rockets point guard went off. "I think that's a disgrace to this league. I think that fans deserve better," he told gathered reporters. Similarly, James Harden said he would rest "when I retire."
The concept of sitting players has generated quite a bit of controversy in recent weeks. Teams like the Spurs, the Cavs and the Warriors have rested star players in the run-up to the playoffs (and in previous years), particularly with their postseason fates already cemented. It doesn't sit well with everybody, however, including Beverley, who went on to call it "disrespecting the game." NBA commissioner Adam Silver even weighed in, going so far as to send teams a memo saying they would face penalties if they sat star players without injury during big games.
But teams in championship contention face a difficult decision: sit players for specific games for rest, or risk injury that could leave the team destined for an early playoff exit.
All sports are a war of attrition. The longer guys play, the better the chances they will suffer an injury of some kind. Those odds increase as their bodies tire at the end of a long season, particularly veterans. With playoff positioning fixed for some of the top teams, including the Rockets, there is the temptation to hold guys out of games to both avoid injury problems and get them fresh for what many consider the "real season."
The Rockets are not strangers to this concept. They have routinely held Nene — at 34, the most senior player on the team — out of back-to-back games this season. They said they would do so at the start of the year. But they have yet to mandate rest for anyone else, especially Harden, who is insistent on being in every game.
But during Tuesday's loss to the Warriors, social media began to buzz with concerns over Harden's health and the wisdom of allowing him to play in every game. The MVP candidate had yet another triple double, but his 24 points came on 5-20 shooting, including 1-9 from the three-point line. It wasn't just an off night. Back on March 18 in a game against the Denver Nuggets, Harden jammed his wrist in a fall. He has been playing with it for nearly two weeks and it was aggravated against the Warriors. It was causing him noticeable pain during Tuesday night's loss.
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Coach Mike D'Antoni admitted after the game on Tuesday the Rockets may need to look more closely at the injury, but Harden was adamant he would not miss any time. The Rockets are already without forward Ryan Anderson, who is out for about another week with a sprained ankle. Still, with the No. 3 spot in the playoff race locked up (there is near zero chance of moving up or down), would resting an injured wrist be such a bad thing?
Balancing the desires of fans who attend games and want to see their superstars with the team's goal of winning a championship is tricky. It is hard to believe diehard NBA supporters wouldn't trade a few games without a signature star if it meant a better chance of winning a title for their teams. But it's one thing to sit someone who has an actual injury or an older player with a lot of wear and tear on his body, another entirely to rest an otherwise healthy young talent.
In the case of the Rockets, Harden's injury may force a hard decision. He is the linchpin of the franchise this year and for quite a few to come. If he can't shoot effectively and if his wrist continues to be a problem into the playoffs, their remarkable season could be wasted. His toughness is certainly admirable and it's clear Harden feels he has a point to make with his play this season and his increased leadership role, but if it ends in an early exit yet again, no one will remember the valiant efforts during the year. They'll only see one more postseason failure.